Federal gov't could detain Roma refugee claimants, report suggests
Roma rest on the pavement near the Bastille square in Paris Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. (AP / Jacques Brinon)
TORONTO -- The federal government is prepared to consider detaining Roma refugee claimants unless recent amendments to the refugee system are successful in reducing the number who apply for asylum, newly obtained documents suggest.
A tougher approach may be necessary if a plan to speed up the screening process and block illegitimate claims isn't "aggressive enough" in reducing the number of Roma applicants from Europe, an internal Canada Border Services Agency report says.
"Other deterrent measures being examined include detention for mass arrivals of individuals seeking refugee protection," says the report, which was drafted before before the Conservative government introduced a crackdown in June on bogus refugee claims.
The newly revised refugee law gives Public Safety Minister Vic Toews the power to designate refugee claimants as "irregular arrivals" and detain them upon entry to Canada. The amendments are to take effect by the end of the year.
Asylum applicants falling under that designation would be held by CBSA pending investigations into their admissibility.
Such an approach would "require significant resources from the CBSA, and will have significant legal implications," warns the report, obtained by The Canadian Press under federal Access to Information laws.
Toews' office did not directly respond when asked whether the minister is considering applying the designation to Roma refugee claimants.
In an email, spokeswoman Julie Carmichael said only that any decision to use the designation "would be made in accordance with Canadian law."
Hungary was Canada's biggest source of refugee applicants last year with 4,442 claimants -- the majority of which are believed to be Roma, a stateless ethnic group. Almost all of the claims were rejected or abandoned.
A mandatory visa requirement for Hungary would be the "most effective" way to reduce the number of Hungarian applicants in the short term, the report says.
It also says speeding up the processing of claims and placing restrictions on claimants from countries unlikely to produce legitimate refugees was a better solution in the long run -- changes that are now being put in place.
Though Ottawa has yet to decide which countries will be on the so-called "safe country" list, it's expected to include European Union nations.
Some applicants from Hungary come to Canada solely for the purpose of "exploiting" social assistance and health benefits, but not all Roma claims are illegitimate, the report notes.
The number of Hungarian claims started to skyrocket after June 2009, when Ottawa imposed a visa requirement on the Czech Republic -- another country that has been a departure point for Roma refugee claims.
Immigration Canada spokesman Bill Brown said in an email that immigration officials review a "wide range" of factors when considering imposing travel visa requirements, adding the department is currently "monitoring the situation in Hungary."
A move to detain Hungarian claimants could result in children being locked up with their parents, the report indicates.
It notes that more than three-quarters of the nearly 3,000 Hungarian applicants arriving at Toronto's Pearson International Airport over a 10-month period last year came as a family.
A decision to detain Roma claimants would likely face a legal challenge under provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights that protect against arbitrary detention, said Lorne Waldman, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.
Confining all refugees from a certain country or geographic area would also likely result in legitimate applicants being detained alongside questionable ones, he added.
"Genuine refugees will be thrown into detention for lengthy periods of time while their case is being processed, and they're going to be subjected to the psychological trauma that often accompanies detention," Waldman said.
Though he expects confining specific refugee groups would reduce the number of applicants over time, the human cost and potential rights violations would outweigh the possible benefits of easing pressure on the refugee system, Waldman argued.
The CBSA report was prepared in the wake of the Conservative government's public frustration with the challenge of reducing refugee claims from Europe.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has singled out Hungarian refugee applicants, accusing them of targeting Canada with bogus claims of persecution in order to collect financial support and tap into government resources intended for well-founded claims.